A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Can Writing Be Taught—Is That the Right Question?

Many writers and writing teachers have posed the question: “Can writing be taught?” Most of us have seen at least part of the debate in which some say it’s useless to try to teach writing to those who aren’t born with a talent for it. Those people are then typically criticized for insulting students who are trying so hard to learn. Good writing, the critics point out, often takes years of study and practice, but can be learned.

To me, though, the debate is based on the wrong question.

Sure, just about anyone can learn structure, characterization, story arc and all the tangibles that go with good writing. Anyone can improve vocabulary and grammar. But does that make a person a writer?

Maybe the real question is, “Is a person disinterested enough to be a writer?”

Disinterested is not uninterested. In fact the disinterested person is curious about most things. Disinterestedness is that place where one notices everything while remaining apart from it. It is Flaubert’s flaneur, the wanderer who travels through life observing and learning. It is what makes a good writer: someone who can appreciate all sides of a story and its characters, someone who understands a story’s villains as well as its heroes, someone who sees even minor characters as people and not stereotypes. Someone without a point to drive home. It is awareness of everything around you, without succumbing to emotion, which leads to accuracy, and honesty.

As the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, in order to aesthetically judge, one must be disinterested in what he is judging. That’s relative, of course, since no person or writer can eliminate all her biases. But an awareness of possible bias helps one negate it, and balance it by becoming more attentive to the target of that bias.

Let me try a slightly different definition: Disinterestedness is that middle ground between abandonment of oneself and complete self-absorption, between losing oneself to a passion and restricting one’s passion to personal satisfaction.

Ah, but wait, you say. My writing teacher said to write my passion. I don’t disagree. As I also wrote a few weeks ago, a writer should embrace his passion, even his hate. To love too easily is to court sentimentality. So it’s how you approach your passion, how you channel it and transfer it to the page, and how you make it sympathetic to the reader that matters. No one wants to read a polemic, because by taking sides an author tells readers what to think. Your passion instead should make you want to explore the theme, write every detail about the subject, and by doing so you will include a more accurate view, which allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Call it literary honesty.

This begs the question, of course: “Can such an outlook on life be taught or must one be born with it?”

In the same sense that writing skills and conventions can be taught, it’s possible that a person can learn to become more watchful, more mindful and balanced. It doesn’t hurt to be an introvert, since introverts are more likely to stay outside the noisier mainstream (good news for introverts at last!) and observe. It also helps explain why journalists often make good creative writers, since they are trained to remain as impartial as possible, seeking out information about all sides of an issue.

But unlike an expanded vocabulary, or the many conventions of writing, this type of learning is less academically based than spiritual in nature. Whether that makes it easier to learn, however, is still subject to debate. I know some people who have learned disinterestedness, and some who will never learn it. That may not provide much of an answer, but at least it asks a better question.


Pencil drawing by delph-ambi. No changes made, but image may be cropped by WordPress for display. License info: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode

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Categorised in: Craft of Writing, Fiction